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Much of ancient Chinese thought is characterized by its practical orientation. The early Chinese thinkers seem to have been preoccupied with the devising of political and social formulas to meet practical and pressing problems of their time; they gave little attention to pure abstraction. However, the six chapters that remain of Gongsun Longzi (originally a fourteen-chapter work) are almost exclusively devoted to metaphysics and logic.

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Gongsun Long had one of the few bisyllabic Chinese family names—Gongsun. A leader of the School of Names, he was a court entertainer who amused his audience with his outstanding oratorical and argumentative skills. His opponents, whose works provide a vague outline of Gongsun Long’s life, accused him of artfully using words merely to win arguments, never to convince people completely. However, Gongsun Long’s own book shows that he was not arguing for argument’s sake but was driven by a zeal to “rectify the names” in quite the same manner as was Confucius. At least one ruler valued Gongsun Long’s views enough to give him an important government appointment, and the philosopher spent most of his life around different princes to whom he offered his advice on how to govern. His personal political fortunes waxed and waned in proportion to the confidence he could win from his patrons.

The primary concern of the School of Names was an investigation into the “names of things,” or into what lies behind a name. In Gongsun Longzi, Gongsun Long quite succinctly presents a summary of the problems that he and his fellows treated with tireless persistence. All these problems seem to center on the key question of the distinction between the universal and the particular, between the abstract idea as the essence of things and the concrete things themselves as objects of sense-perception.

The White Horse Discourse

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Gongsun Long is best known for “The White Horse Dialogue,” one of the six chapters in his book. He is said to have admitted that this discourse constitutes the core of his philosophy. The argument starts with Gongsun Long’s premise that “A white horse is not a horse.”

Gongsun Long “proves” his thesis in several ways. To begin with, “horse” can be any kind of horse because it is a universal concept of horse. This term does not exclude any color, unlike the description “white horse,” which fits only a particular kind of horse. Hence, the two names are not equal. Additionally, the term “horse” excludes the concept of “all colors”; that is, the essence of horse (horseness) has nothing to do with color. Because horseness cannot be equal to horseness plus whiteness, a white horse is not a horse.

By the same token, a white horse is not “white” either. The abstract concept of whiteness does not involve any object that is white. Whiteness has nothing to do with “making anything white.” However, the “white” of a white horse is inseparably involved in the concrete object of a white horse; therefore, whiteness plus horseness cannot be the same as whiteness alone.

The moment the reader grasps that Gongsun Long is merely trying to expound on the existence of “universals” as independent entities, the famous white horse discourse presents no difficulty to understand. With the same understanding, the reader will also be able to appreciate Gongsun Long’s position in another of his celebrated discourses, the argument on “The Hard and the White.”

Hardness and Whiteness

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A hard and white stone is actually two entities, according to Gongsun Long. He argues that hardness is perceptible to touch while whiteness is perceptible only to sight. Because the tactile and visual senses are separate, there must be two entities—a white stone and a hard stone—in a hard and white stone. In this argument, Gongsun Long made the distinction between these entities on an epistemological basis. If only that which is perceived through the senses constitutes an entity, then the abstraction “stoneness” does not exist. Stoneness must be perceived either through whiteness or hardness.

Gongsun Long, however, always went back to his basic distinction between a concrete thing considered as an object of sense perception and a universal concept conceived in the mind without the aid of any sense data. When his opponents countered his argument by saying that because both hardness and whiteness can be perceived only through the existence of a stone, the three entities are actually inseparable and one, Gongsun Long’s answer was to repeat the reasoning he used in his discourse on the white horse: Neither whiteness nor hardness as such depends on its attachment to any concrete object in order to exist. They exist as “independent universals.” (It may be argued that if Gongsun Long had wished to be thoroughly consistent, he should have insisted that a hard and white stone is actually three separate entities.)

To prove further that whiteness as a universal exists independently, Gongsun Long argued that if there were no independent whiteness as such, no concrete thing could be made white by being joined with something called “white.” Therefore, there must be a “general whiteness”—which is the term used for the essence of “whiteness” as a universal.

Universals and Particulars

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These discourses illustrate the views on reality and existence that Gongsun Long sums up in his theory of name, reference, and things discussed in the chapter “On Names and Actuality.” A thing is a concrete object. It has actuality and holds a position in the universe. Heaven, earth, and the myriad objects are all things. This is to say that Gongsun Long’s “thing” is but a concrete particular.

A name is commonly understood as “pointing at” a concrete particular or at a concrete actuality. However, according to Gongsun Long in the chapter “Pointings and Things,” a name “refers” to a universal idea. Thus, the reference of a name is a universal, not a particular. The term used by Gongsun Long for “reference” is zhi, which literally means “to point at” and has been translated by some as “designation.” However, he stresses the common confusion of a reference (universal) with a thing (particular). In this chapter, Gongsun Long was trying to show that a thing commonly goes under a name, but what a name truly refers to is not that thing alone but a universal concept of that thing. Hence, he took pains to argue about the misnaming of concrete things. The last point is part of the common intellectual tradition shared by Gongsun Long and many other thinkers of his time, including the Confucians. All those who included this point in their philosophical systems emphasized the moral significance of “calling a thing by its correct name.” Their common belief was that a confusion of names is the direct cause of social disorder; when names are confused, people no longer know what to live by.

Gongsun Long made it absolutely clear that concrete things exist with or without names; hence, names and their references (universals) also exist quite separate from concrete particulars. If so, how is a universal (zhi, or reference) ever perceived? Gongsun Long emphasized the point that universals cannot be perceived through the senses unless they are joined with concrete particulars. In a lengthy and rather involved argument, Gongsun Long attempted to explain that every particular consists of a number of universals and that no universal is perceived except through its “universal-particular” (zhi wu) combination or through its manifestation in a particular. Hence, it may be said that all things in the universe are, in essence, universals, and yet nothing in the universe is really a universal as such. This argument amounts to an exposition on the existence of particulars and the subsistence of universals in space and time. As an illustration, Gongsun Long pointed out that although an ox and a horse do not add up to either two oxen or two horses, they do make “two” things. The universal of number subsists in the two entirely different particulars—ox and horse. People cannot perceive number as such, for what they do perceive is an ox or a horse, which is a “universal-particular.” This, in brief, is Gongsun Long’s tour de force known as the theory of zhi wu, or universal-particular. The last illustration appears in “Understanding Change,” a chapter devoted to a discussion on change. In regarding every particular as only a particular combination of manifested universals, Gongsun Long recognized the distinction of one species of things from another. Furthermore, he even hinted at his acceptance of the distinction between genus and species. Consequently, he carried the above illustration further by declaring that there is a closer comparison between ox and horse than between ox and fowl.

If the particular consists of many manifested universals, and if universals do not change, what then does change? Gongsun Long’s explanation in “Understanding Change” is that change occurs only in the particular. The universal “right” does not change, but anything that is placed to the right can be “changed” to the left. Or, the universal “right” remains constant, but its manifestation can appear in different combinations, such as “right hand,” “right leg,” or “right side.”

The admission that particulars change led Gongsun Long to offer a theory of change. What is offered, however, verges on an elaboration of the “five elements” school of thought in ancient China. This school, having found its sources in the photo-philosophical and sometimes superstitious ideas of China’s high antiquity, maintained a system of cyclical change, mutual destruction, and begetting of the five “basic elements” (agents or forces: water, fire, wood, metal, earth) as an explanation of life and existence. These elements were further matched to social and political institutions. Therefore, when Gongsun Long asserts that wood should not be allowed to overcome metal, lest green displace white and the subjects usurp the prerogatives of the prime minister, he is simply borrowing a page from the “five elements” school to explain the need for a fixed order in society in accordance with the natural order in the universe. Any violation of this order would bring disaster, and to confuse the proper designations of this order would be an inexcusable act of “disorderly naming.”

However, much as Gongsun Long was concerned with the right use of names, there is something incongruous about attaching a “five elements” argument to the discourse on change that still centers around the distinction between universals and particulars. His argument is quite complete and consistent without bringing in the semimetaphysical system of the five elements, and the latter really has nothing to do with Gongsun Long’s central thesis. This incongruity has caused many scholars to conclude that this portion of “Understanding Change” may be spurious.

An interesting theory about similarity and difference has been attributed to Gongsun Long by other Chinese writers from about the same period, although it does not appear in Gongsun Longzi. Although the question of attribution has not been settled conclusively, the theory does fit the philosopher’s central thesis. The theory holds that all things are, in one sense, different and, in another sense, the same. A number of schools of thought in ancient China have provided explanations of this statement. Gongsun Long and his disciples, however, explained the theory with their universal-particular dualism: Because everything is but a manifestation of universals, and the latter do not change, then all things are really the same. Hence, a white horse and a yellow horse are the same because both are horse; even ox and fowl are the same because both are universal-particulars. On the other hand, every particular is different from another, so no two horses are really completely alike.

The Paradoxes

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Gongsun Long owes his popular recognition to a number of paradoxical statements that are recorded in the works of other Chinese writers. None of them is preserved in Gongsun Longzi, but all have become favorite subjects of discussion throughout the past two millennia. “A white horse is not a horse” is itself a paradox, and Gongsun Long used it as a vehicle for his major argument. Some of the better-known paradoxes follow: A fowl has three legs; fire is not hot; things never come to an end; the shadow of a flying bird never moves; and an orphan calf never had a mother.

All these paradoxes can be supported if one accepts Gongsun Long’s two main arguments: the metaphysical distinction between the universal and the particular and the epistemological distinction between one sense perception and another. All can be explained, to a large extent, by following the same pattern of argument observed in his white horse dialogue. The universal “leg” and the two actual legs of a chicken make three legs. Fire and hot are two universals that are not to be equated; also, because fire is perceived through the eyes and “hot” is learned through touch, they are not the same thing and the copula “is” cannot be applied. Things as containers of universals may change their appearances but never their essences; consequently, they are never exhausted. The shadow of a flying bird moves only as a particular, but the universal of shadow neither moves nor stands still because it is not in time or space. This paradox has also been explained in the fashion of the Greek philosopher Zeno with the observation that because at any infinitesimally short instant, the shadow must be standing still, it never really moves. The orphan calf, as a universal, has had no mother. Furthermore, a calf does not become orphaned until its mother dies; hence, the moment the term “orphan calf” becomes meaningful, the mother of the calf no longer exists.

Throughout the years, numerous attempts were made to interpret these paradoxes in various ways, and with every attempt, interest in the School of Names was revived. While some of the attempted explanations are transparently trivial, others do relate themselves to fundamental problems in logic and epistemology.

Gongsun Long and His Critics

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Much of the difficulty in understanding Gongsun Long stems from the fact that Chinese is an uninflected language. Particularly in archaic Chinese, it is impossible to distinguish “white” from “whiteness.” The few prepositional words that exist can tolerate a large variety of interpretations, and depending on its position in the sentence, every word can function as a verb. Bearing these features in mind, the reader can readily imagine the abstruse language in which Gongsun Long tried to make clear his ideas about universals and particulars. The modern reader is not the only victim. Some of Gongsun Long’s contemporaries objected to his arguments on the ground that they did not “convince” the heart; however, they admitted that they could not outwit Gongsun Long with words. They paid full respect to Gongsun Long’s sophistry.

The mere fact that the members of the School of Names made it their principal concern to argue in abstraction has won for them a permanent position among ancient Chinese thinkers. Gongsun Long’s interest in the proper use of names is directly related to the didactic and moralistic Confucian doctrine of rectification of names, but the moralistic element is almost completely submerged in his metaphysical system. The lack of the moralistic element is why the orthodox Confucians belittled the contribution of the School of Names, describing the latter’s efforts as mere plays on words. It is possible that Gongsun Long and his group actually expounded a fully developed system that failed to survive because of powerful opposition by Confucians. Whatever the case, only a few pages of his works remain, and annotation and commentary on his works are sparse. Contempt for abstract argument as “empty words” has been a persistent trend in Chinese intellectual tradition, and as a result, Gongsun Longzi has not received a great deal of critical attention.


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Additional Reading

Allinson, Robert E., ed. Understanding the Chinese Mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989. Contains an article by Christoph Harbsmeier, a leading grammarian of classical Chinese, that criticizes Hansen’s mass nouns hypothesis.

Chan, Wing-tsit. A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1963. This comprehensive anthology, with bibliography and glossary, contains a translation of part of Gongsun Longzi. Although Chan regards the logicians as having had no influence on Chinese thought, the selections are useful.

Fung Yu-Lan. A History of Chinese Philosophy. Translated by Dirk Bodde. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1952-1953. Perhaps the most authoritative survey of the complete history of Chinese philosophy. The discussion of Gongsun Long treats him as having discovered the Platonic world of forms.

Fung Yu-Lan. A Short History of Chinese Philosophy. Translated by Dirk Bodde. New York: Macmillan, 1948. A brief but good introduction to Chinese philosophy.

Graham, A. C. Disputers of the Dao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China. La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1989. This is a thorough introduction to ancient Chinese philosophy that makes comparisons to traditional and twentieth century Western philosophy, both analytical and deconstructionist. Graham explains the white horse dialogue using a dialogue concerning a sword and blade and gives considerably qualified defense of the mass noun idea.

Graham, A. C. Studies in Chinese Philosophy and Philosophical Literature. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990. Contains three studies on the white horse dialogue, including a textual study on the dating and composition. An earlier study interprets the white horse discourse in terms of class and number, and a later study treats it in terms of part and whole. Graham is considered the one of the best translators of Chinese in the second half of the twentieth century.

Hansen, Chad. A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. This is a comprehensive history of ancient Chinese philosophy, with Daoist sympathies to counter the Confucian accounts of Wing-tsit Chan and other Chinese scholars. It contains a revised version of the mass noun interpretation of Gongsun Long.

Hansen, Chad. Language and Logic in Ancient China. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983. The original version of the author’s mass noun hypothesis.

Harbsmeier, Christoph. Language and Logic. Vol. 7, part 1 of Science and Civilization in China, edited by Joseph Needham. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1997. In the concluding volume of this monumental study of China, Harbsmeier presents a survey of Chinese grammar and gives his interpretation of Gongsun Long.

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